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Secret recordings emerge as key evidence at FIFA bribe trial

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NEW YORK (AP) A turning point in the investigation of soccer’s governing body came with a 6 a.m. wake-up call by the FBI to the five-star Miami hotel room of a Brazilian sports marketing executive named Jose Hawilla.

A startled Hawilla, after learning he was a target of the probe, eventually decided to cooperate by wearing a wire – a coup for U.S. prosecutors at the ongoing U.S. trial of three former South American soccer officials charged in the corruption scandal that’s embroiled FIFA.

[READ: Key battles in the Manchester Derby]

The prosecutors have used the hours of the secretly recorded audio evidence to help bring charges against dozens of other soccer officials and marketing executives accused of paying them a fortune in bribes in exchange for their influence in awarding lucrative commercial rights to big tournaments. Several defendants have pleaded guilty since the case was announced in 2015.

U.S. authorities “know everything,” Hawilla said in one taped conversation with a colleague he was trying to protect, according to transcripts made public for the first time. “They have so much information that lying is the worst thing you can do.”

Jurors have heard Hawilla’s recordings and testimony at the trial of former national soccer federation presidents Jose Maria Marin, of Brazil, Manuel Burga, of Peru, and Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay. All pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and other charges, with their lawyers arguing they were framed by untrustworthy cooperators like Hawilla seeking a break in their own cases.

The trial, which continued on Wednesday, is in its fourth week in federal court in Brooklyn.

Hawilla, a 74-year-old grandfather originally from Sao Paulo, testified that he became head of the Traffic Group marketing firm after several years as a sports journalist. He testified he learned from the start that to win contracts for commercial rights for major soccer tournaments, soccer officials expected to be paid off in a systematic way, a necessary evil some in the business accepted but he found “revolting.”

He said to get rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament in the early 1990s he paid bribes to two of the biggest names in the scandal, former FIFA officials Jack Warner, of Trinidad and Tobago, and Chuck Blazer, of the United States. Warner remains overseas fighting extradition, while Blazer became a cooperator before dying earlier this year.

A partner of Hawilla explained to him “we had to pay a bribe to Jack Warner and that, for sure, Chuck Blazer was going to find out about it and we would have to pay a bribe to him as well,” Hawilla testified in Portuguese through an interpreter.

He added: “I did not agree with the practice, but, unfortunately, you are practically forced to do that.”

Hawilla told the jury that he and other marketing executives he worked with paid tens of millions of dollars over the years to other top soccer officials in bribes papered over by falsified contracts. He named another soccer official from the Cayman Islands who’s pleaded guilty, Jeffrey Webb, as someone who took a $10 million bribe in March 2013.

The FBI arrested Hawilla about two months after the Webb bribe. By 2014, prosecutors contend, he was a full-blown informant, luring Marin into an April 2014 conversation in which the defendant negotiated a bribe by saying, “It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?”

Hawilla responded: “Of course. That money had to be given to you.”

In another tape, Hawilla appeared to upset two business partners by telling them he wanted to pull out of the scheme so he could clean up his business and sell it. One cautioned that anyone who bought it would have to understand that, “There will always be payoffs. There will be payoffs forever.”

The same person is overheard saying, “I want to co-exist with and make all the presidents rich,” even if it meant less money for him.

Asked in court why someone would think that way, Hawilla boiled it down to one word: “Demagoguery.”

Rio prosecutors launch probe into soccer final violence

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro launched an investigation Thursday into the fan violence surrounding the Copa Sudamericana final between local club Flamengo and Argentine team Independiente.

[ SOURCE: LAFC close to signing third DP, Geraldes of Sporting CP ]

Clashes broke out on the night before Wednesday’s match at Maracana Stadium, and continued throughout the day. There was vandalism inside the stadium during the match and violence afterward, with more than 50 Flamengo supporters being detained over the two days.

The Rio prosecutor’s office said in a statement it would be questioning officials at Brazil’s football confederation, South American soccer’s ruling body, CONMEBOL, and local police about the incidents.

The statement added that “a profound investigation of the facts is needed so we can identify and punish the criminals that disguised as fans to spread chaos, fear and disorder in society.”

Major Silvio Luiz, head of policing for the final, criticized Flamengo’s handling of ticket sales.

Flamengo drew the second-leg match 1-1, and lost the final 3-2 on aggregate. The Copa is the second most prestigious club competition in South American soccer.

Ligue 1 set to use VAR starting in 2018/19 season

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With video replay technology becoming more and more prevalent in soccer across the globe, another major European league has revealed it too will join those ranks.

[ SOURCE: LAFC set to sign third DP with Sporting CP’s Geraldes ]

Ligue 1 has announced that the French top flight will begin to utilize video replay and have a video assistant referee (VAR) starting in the 2018/19 season.

Major League Soccer and the German Bundesliga are just two of the major global leagues to implement the system thus far. In MLS, the technology can be used in four instances; when goals are scored, during penalty situations, when a straight red card is given and during cases of mistaken identity.

French outlet L’Equipe wrote on Thursday that Ligue 1 would also follow a similar structure in what decisions VAR officials will be reviewable.

Spain has also announced that it will introduce VAR in 2018, ahead of the next La Liga season.

Top Premier League storylines — Week 17

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The title is looking more and more like it’s heading to Manchester, so will Tottenham be able to slow the Premier League leaders on Saturday?

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

 

Here are the four biggest storylines ahead of this weekend’s action.

Can anyone stop the Cityzens?

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

Nobody has found a way to halt Pep Guardiola‘s side yet this season in PL play, so why would that change this weekend? City remain unbeaten through 17 matches, and while Spurs enter the weekend unbeaten in its last four, Mauricio Pochettino and Co. have their work cut out. The City attack, which has scored 52 goals this season, has shown no signs slowing down during the first four-and-a-half months of play, giving Tottenham a big test defensively. Harry Kane and his 12 goals will surely have a say in the get together, but Spurs has been lacking thus far in another go-to finisher.

Will the Toffees keep rolling under Big Sam?

Everton vs. Swansea City — 3 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

It’s been quite the turnaround recently at Goodison Park, and Everton has the chance to extend its unbeaten streak to six games on Monday. Sam Allardyce has brought life to the Toffees as of late, with Everton scoring 11 goals over the last five matches.

Foxes aim to climb higher, while Palace shoots for safety

Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace — 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

The Foxes have found their footing this season, and dare I say there are some glimpses of the team that won the title two years ago? Since Leicester’s 2-0 defeat to Man City, the Foxes have looked the part of a top-tier PL side, winning four of five matches, including victories over Tottenham and Burnley. Meanwhile, Palace has made the relegation battle a very intriguing one, as Roy Hodgson and Co. sit just a point inside the bottom three. Amazingly, Palace is unbeaten in seven of its last eight matches, but the club remains in 18th place.

Clarets aim for third consecutive victory

Brighton vs. Burnley — 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBC Sports Gold (Watch online at NBCSports.com)

The Clarets don’t boast a bonafide goalscorer, but Burnley looks like a well-oiled machine as Sean Dyche‘s side sits on the edge of the top four. Although the side likely won’t be pulling off a Leicester-sided feat in 2017/18, what the Clarets are accomplishing is quite amazing given the squad currently in place. Brighton has gone through its share of struggles recently, going winless in its last six matches, and scoring just three goals in that span. They’ll likely have a hard time breaking past Burnley’s tough backline.

NYCFC busy on Thursday with Abdul-Salaam, Stuver additions

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New York City FC is moving on from the club’s first-ever MLS SuperDraft selection, but they’ll be acquiring a solid defensive piece as the team continues to rebuild at the back.

[ SOURCE: LAFC finalizing deal to make Sporting CP’s Geraldes third DP ]

On Thursday, NYCFC announced a trade sending former 2015 first-round pick Khiry Shelton to Sporting KC in exchange for defender Saad Abdul-Salaam.

Shelton, who spent three seasons with NYCFC, struggled to find playing time under manager Patrick Vieira, particularly once the organization drafted England youth international Jack Harrison in 2016.

Vieira and Co. will be getting back a player also selected in the 2015 SuperDraft in Abdul-Salaam.

With the departures of Ethan White, RJ Allen and Andraz Struna this offseason, the move certainly makes sense for NYCFC, who were severely lacking at the right back position heading into this week.

NYCFC signed Malmo defender Anton Tinnerholm on Wednesday to help improve the backline.

The Eastern Conference side also added goalkeeper Brad Stuver from the Columbus Crew on Thursday, with the 26-year-old presumably serving as the backup to Sean Johnson in 2018.